Four years ago, the Show-Me Institute came out strongly against plans to spend upwards of a half-billion dollars to turn Lambert-St. Louis International Airport into an “Aerotropolis.” The plan revolved around the idea that Chinese cargo shipped through Saint Louis could be profitable—but only if the government subsidized it to the hilt. As our readers know, the project died not once but twice that year, and has died each year it has been introduced since.
It’s a good thing it kept dying too, as a story from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch showed last week.
In September 2011, a China Cargo flight carrying 80 tons of manufactured products landed at Lambert and was greeted by dignitaries from across the region. But airport officials said that market disappeared amid a downturn in international cargo. [Emphasis mine]
Imagine if Missouri had committed to the Aerotropolis project and then, poof, the market “disappeared”—which of course assumes it was ever really there. Taxpayers would have been left holding the bag.
The admission about Aerotropolis was part of a larger article about a lease just signed for a new “Mexico Hub” at Lambert, a story my colleague Joe Miller has already detailed. Lambert’s director, Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge, says that the airport “is not paying a penny” for the new project, and if true, it’s a very good thing. At a time when its passenger traffic is down, the last thing Lambert should be doing is speculating on real estate, especially given its track record.
However, it’s not clear whether the Mexico Hub developer will try to draw on existing government subsidy programs to advance the project. An airport project at Lambert fully financed by the private sector seems very good; the concern is whether this project is too good to be true. One would hope that state and local officials would be chastened after the Aerotropolis debacle if they’re considering handing out tax incentives, whatever their scale.
I certainly hope the Mexico Hub project can move ahead on its own merits and without taxpayer money. Cargo markets have “disappeared” before, and taxpayers shouldn’t be on the hook if history repeats itself. We’ll keep you posted.